Drone photography – one year on

Well, eleven months to be precise but it’s close enough. So, how have I got on?

The answer is: “surprisingly well” to my delight and, well, surprise!


So, what has gone well and what still needs work or thought?

Well, let’s start with what for me makes the whole process workable – the viewing screen. The Mavic Pro doesn’t have a screen supplied with the controller so I purchased an Android smartphone to fulfil this function. Not my smartest choice as the minute I plugged the “smartphone” into the Mavic controller it went “Oh, goody! A power bank!” and proceeded to draw power from the controller. Unsure as to whether this was normal or not, or indeed if it was expected, I decided to change and use an iPad mini instead. I figured the bigger screen would make it easier to read the display so parted with a few more hard-earned pennies to buy the small iPad and a sunshade to keep the glare off the screen. This worked much better apart from one niggle, it kept sending out a warning message that it was running low on memory even though I was only running the DJI app. Nervous that this might cause me to lose sight and/or control of the drone I switched to using my iPhone whilst I investigated.

© Dave Whenham
A Milestone: Woodside Mills lock, an image I’ve had in mind for a while.

Long story short – I never did get around to investigating and now simply use my iPhone. The only compromise is that if I’m going to be out all day I take a power bank to top the phone up for normal use if required after flying the drone although to date I haven’t needed to use it. I put the phone in Airplane mode whilst using the drone to prevent calls or messages interfering with the flight.  I need to wear my reading glasses AND my distance glasses simultaneously however; the former on the end of my nose to view the screen and controller and the latter above them so I can maintain line of sight with the drone. I must look slightly odd, but such is old age.

Incidentally, all the images here were taken a couple of mornings ago especially for this blog.

Flying the drone and keeping it safe in the air was always going to be my biggest concern and I have to say I’m very glad I opted for a premium model as I quickly got to grips with the basics and whilst I was in no hurry to step out of beginner mode when I did take the plunge I was pleasantly surprised. If in doubt, I can let go of the joysticks and the drone will hover where it is until I get myself sorted! The requirement  to maintain line of sight means that under my control the drone never gets remotely close to the maximum heights or distances it can technically achieve but I cannot see why people want to fly their expensive kit in places where they cannot see it. For the images I take, and it is mainly stills, I rarely need to exceed two hundred feet and usually shoot from an altitude of between eighty and a hundred feet.

© Dave Whenham
I was very close to the overhanging trees here but by keeping the drone in view I was able to gently get into position for this shot.

I have crashed the drone once, in Snowdonia, on the first occasion when I had someone with me whilst I flew the drone. Thankfully it was less than twenty feet off the ground and the branches I flew it into helped cushion the fall. I had the drone pointing towards me which means that right on the controller means go left as far as the drone is concerned. A mistake I make rarely now and on that occasion I was very unlucky; I realised it was heading sideways towards the tree and “corrected” its movement forgetting which way round it was. Still, no harm done apart from a few scratches to the drone and a dent to my pride.

I have not yet tried any of the flight modes but that is something on my to-do list for after I’ve improved image quality which is my main goal – consistently good files with which to work.

© Dave Whenham
Looking towards Elland (and my house)

So, whilst flying the drone is still an adrenalin-fuelled experience I do now feel confident in flying the machine and am starting to produce some pleasing results, particularly with still images which I capture using the DNG raw mode and process in Photoshop. I have found that I need to apply sharpening and clarity a little more aggressively than I am used to and that I have to be extra careful with regards to noise in the image. I usually take the drone out early in the day and have not yet shot extensively in the brighter part of the day but when I have I have found the files a lot cleaner, especially with the sun behind the drone.

© Dave Whenham
A brief glimpse of some good light from behind – makes a big difference!

I experimented this week with the bracketing facility on the drone and these lined up very well and therefore blended well in Photoshop. This is probably the only preset I have used as I have the drone set up for manual operation in still image mode; with greater confidence in flying the craft comes more time to study the screen and adjust other factors such as image settings.

© Dave Whenham
Woodside Mill locks near Elland.

The still files convert well for black and white too and even a potentially aggressive mono converter such as Silver Efex Pro can produce some very striking results (see above and below). I usually try to frame an image so as to use all of the file (its “only” 12mp and I try to use them all) but these images above Woodside Mill locks were ones where the crop made more sense.

© Dave Whenham
Another cropped image – which converted very well in Silver Efex Pro

So, I have made good progress with flying, settled on a screen and am starting to get some good still images from the drone. Whilst there is still some work to do with still image quality, or perhaps more accurately consistency, I am now producing usable and pleasing images from every flight.

What about the areas which have not gone so well?

You will note there is no video in this blog post. Not because I didn’t take any but because I’m not happy yet with the quality of the video I am capturing. One look at YouTube however will confirm that the Mavic Pro is capable of stunning video footage so I am under no illusions – the weak link is me! I will post a minute or twos video in a separate post at some point just for reference.

© Dave Whenham
I thought I should share the colour version too.

I have not yet had the confidence or indeed understanding to move the video mode out of automatic and I think I need to do some serious research on this aspect and start to experiment. Moving the stills capture to manual was a no-brainer as I’ve been shooting cameras in manual mode for over forty years (my first camera was fully manual). I need to transfer some of these skills to shooting video footage with the drone. I am able to capture reasonable video footage, manually, with my Fuji X-T20 camera so I do have some skills to draw on there too.

© Dave Whenham
River, canal, road – all lead to Halifax.

The other key skill I need to develop is grading the footage. It may be because I rarely shoot in great light with the drone but I find the footage is not as usable out-of-the box as footage from my Fuji X-T20. So far I have had mixed success with some footage turning out very nicely and some very disappointingly. Along with learning to capture the footage manually I need to learn how to properly process it if I am to be more confident about sharing video footage from the drone.

So, in conclusion, I have learnt masses in the past eleven months. I have achieved a reasonable level of competency with the flying element, a good level of competency with regards to still imagery and am still learning how to capture good video footage.

But, great progress and a purchase I have never regretted for a single moment.

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